City Food – Shekhar Chai, Anand Vihar
The 24/7 tea stall.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Here’s a persuasive reason to patronise a pavement chai place. The owner is so committed to his stall that he has its name tattooed on his arm. Shekhar Chai is engraved on Shekhar’s right arm, in Hindi.
The chai is rich with the invigorating flavour of freshly crushed ginger. It is served in old-fashioned earthen kulhad that lends the chai a sensory taste of the wet earth. There’s yet another compelling reason to make this pavement stall your new friend. Shekhar Chai is located in a part of the Capital where it happens to be older than many of the surrounding landmarks. It stands right under the elevated track of the Blue Line Metro—no subway route was here when the modest establishment came up more than 20 years ago. It lies across the road from Pacific Mall—no mall was here either. It is adjacent to many multi-storeys—not one was here earlier.
“This was a jungle of kikar,” gushes Shekhar. In his late 20s now, he started giving a helping hand to his father—Sikander, the stall founder—since his childhood days. This afternoon, Shekhar is alone at the stall. “That area used to be full of pigs,” he says, waving towards the aforementioned mall. By now, a few auto rickshaw drivers have gathered for his chai and the talk settles on the locality’s drastic transformation. The verdict isn’t flattering—too much noise and smog now. Shekhar’s is the only dissenting voice. “I have more customers coming to the stall than ever before.”
One of the tea drinkers comments on the high cost of living. That triggers Shekhar to crib about the current price of milk compared to what it was 20 years ago. The now-and-then juxtaposition prompts everyone to get nostalgic about the old days. Amid the babble, the optimistic Shekhar asserts that the old lifestyle choices are staging a comeback. He points to his green-friendly kulhads. They had disappeared from tea shops but are showing up again. “We started to import (sic) them from Pilkhuwa (town) as customers were increasingly asking for kulhad wali chai… people are making a U-turn in search of quality.”
The discussion ends with the tea. A new round of group chai later might start another impassioned chat session. The stall is open 24/7, and the stands in front of Metro pillar no. 172.
The pre-mall chai